Even during this year’s prolonged awards season, a late-breaking Oscar front-runner could have yet to emerge.
As it currently stands, the Hollywood derby looks poised to fete such films as “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “One Night in Miami,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “Mank” and “Soul,” all of which launched on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Disney+ in 2020. Some top-tier candidates, like the gentle travelogue “Nomadland” and the lovely family drama “Minari,” screened at festivals last year and will debut on digital platforms next month. But other titles — namely “Malcolm & Marie,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Cherry” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” — haven’t been released at all.
The eleventh-hour contender is an annual concept. Normally, it’s a movie that bypasses autumn’s pacesetting festival circuit and instead screens for the press in late November, building theatrical momentum right before the Dec. 31 qualification cutoff. Recent examples include “1917,” “Vice” and “Phantom Thread.” None of them eked out a coveted Best Picture win, but “Million Dollar Baby” did back in 2005, wresting the grand prize (as well as trophies for Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman) from presumed favorites like “Ray” and “Sideways.”
This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences postponed the Oscars’ eligibility deadline to Feb. 28 after COVID-19 left studios scrambling to reroute their release plans as movie theaters temporarily shuttered. That means we’re only now beginning the so-called eleventh hour.
Without the routine awards-season campaign hallmarks — no schmoozy industry parties, no in-person premieres, delayed Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations — the race remains wide open. (The Oscar ceremony is slated for April 25.)
Let’s talk about “Malcolm & Marie” first. There’s a lot riding on this one: Netflix paid an astronomical $30 million for the movie in September. Written and shot during quarantine, the two-hander (debuting Feb. 5) stars John David Washington and Zendaya as a couple arriving home from the premiere of the new movie Malcolm directed, an addiction drama that borrows from Marie’s life. While giving a speech, Malcolm forgot to thank her, thus igniting a long, volatile conversation about their relationship, art and the parameters of partnership. Director Sam Levinson, who has collaborated with Zendaya as the creator of HBO’s “Euphoria,” captures the pair’s reckoning in sleek black and white. It’s an actors’ showcase, full of wordy monologues and extreme emotions.
It’s also a bit of a curio. When a mostly glowing review by “the white girl from the Los Angeles Times” hits the internet, Malcolm escalates his bitter rantings about how little critics know. One has to wonder how much of Malcolm’s views are really Levinson’s, considering Levinson’s previous movie, “Assassination Nation,” wasn’t warmly received.
Perhaps some Oscar voters all too familiar with barbed reviews will feel understood, or perhaps they will recognize that this aspect of the film makes it unrelatable and navel-gazing. Levinson clearly wanted to conjure something in the vein of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and John Cassavetes, but he takes a raw lovers’ quarrel and turns it into a well-acted trifle.
Netflix awaits its first Best Picture victory after a growing wave of nominations in the last few years, and “Malcolm & Marie” is one of many candidates that could solidify the streaming service’s prestige. Even if it doesn’t crack the top category, Zendaya and Washington hold their own. The former won an Emmy for “Euphoria” last year, and both are positioned among Hollywood’s brightest young talents. (Washington also appeared in Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” another potential Oscar player.) But they face competition from a bevy of veterans. Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) are headlining the Best Actress contest, while Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Delroy Lindo (“Da 5 Bloods”), Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”), Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) and Gary Oldman (“Mank”) remain Best Actor front-runners.
Without a sprawling cast or obvious sociopolitical import, “Malcolm & Marie” is a less conventional Oscar rival than “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Those movies announce their gravity in the opening frames — the latter via a prescript about an anti-lynching bill that the U.S. Senate rejected in 1937 — and both depict J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI investigating Black public figures whose outspokenness rankled the white establishment.
“Judas,” which bows on HBO Max and in select theaters Feb. 12, is the second movie of the season — after “The Trial of the Chicago 7” — to chronicle Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. Here, he’s portrayed with startling grit by Daniel Kaluuya, who earned a previous Best Actor nod for his star-making turn in “Get Out.”
Kaluuya will compete in the supporting-actor field, while Lakeith Stanfield, playing a petty criminal recruited as an FBI informant, is being touted as the movie’s lead. Stanfield will have a hard time knocking powerhouses like Boseman and Hopkins off the Best Actor shortlist, but Kaluuya is so distinctive in the film that he stands a chance of unseating Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami”) and Sacha Baron Cohen (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) as his category’s bellwether. He’d be the youngest Black performer with two nominations in Oscar history.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is mostly a showcase for Andra Day, who portrays the troubled jazz titan as her ballad “Strange Fruit” becomes an anti-lynching battle cry. (Hoover called the song “un-American,” according to the film, which is based on the book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.”) Lee Daniels, a prior Best Director nominee for “Precious,” helmed “Holiday,” which Hulu acquired from Paramount Pictures for a Feb. 26 release, just one week before Oscar voting begins.
Voters love biopics because the acting is tangible — you can measure a performer’s work against the real person, à la Renée Zellweger’s Judy Garland or Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking. But this is Day’s first major role, and she’ll have to overcome comparisons to Diana Ross, who was nominated for channeling Holiday in 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Another prominent Best Actress contender comes courtesy of Michelle Pfeiffer’s delicious imperiousness in the satire “French Exit.” That movie premiered at the virtual edition of the New York Film Festival in October, where it was greeted with mixed reviews. Its acerbic tone isn’t for everyone, but there’s no denying the pleasure of watching Pfeiffer play a broke Manhattan heiress who won’t let pennilessness dampen her disenchantment. Due out Feb. 12, “Exit” is probably too divisive for a Best Picture nod, but we shouldn’t discount an A-lister like Pfeiffer, especially because she hasn’t been nominated since 1993. Comedies tend to fare well among the screenplay accolades, too.
Lastly, there’s “Cherry.” The crime drama reunites Tom Holland with Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.” The marketing — specifically the abrasive red posters featuring a bruised Holland — makes it painfully obvious that “Cherry” wants us to take it seriously. Will voters? Opening in theaters Feb. 26 and premiering March 12 on Apple+, the film advances Holland’s quest to prove his bona fides beyond the Marvel blockbuster machinery, but some academy members might be put off by its two-and-a-half-hour running time.
We’ll get a clearer sense of where the Oscar roster is headed after the Golden Globe nominations on Feb. 3 and the SAG Award nominations on Feb. 4. Still, the race is so unprecedented that even those might not provide full snapshots. Voters may fall back on 2020 standouts that have built longer-term buzz, or they could succumb to recency bias thanks to these late-breaking entries. Like everything else about the COVID-19 era, there are more questions than answers. But considering how predictable the Oscars have been in recent years — “Parasite” win notwithstanding — a little volatility sounds thrilling.